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The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen is one of the study sites of the Max Planck Schools in Germany.

© Florian Trykowski Fotografie

Pioneering new Max Planck Schools aim to attract Ph.D. students to Germany

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A network of researchers and universities has come together to create the Max Planck Schools—an interdisciplinary, customized Ph.D. program aimed at enticing native and international students to continue their studies in Germany.

Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society, is the initiator of this new graduate program.

© Axel Griesch/MPG

A new graduate program offered through Germany’s Max Planck Society in collaboration with leading German universities and other German research organizations, such as the Fraunhofer Association, is turning the science educational system on its head by breaking away from the established approach in which disciplines are isolated in ivory towers.

This Ph.D. program, known as the Max Planck Schools, is scheduled to launch in fall 2019, offering innovative and challenging learning opportunities for graduate students eager to make their mark in research.

“We want to bring the best minds together from different fields, bring together great students from all over the world, and give them valuable perspectives as future leading scientists,” says the Max Planck Society’s president, Martin Stratmann.

New programs, new ways of thinking

The program, which will be offered in English, is being piloted at three forward-looking schools: the Max Planck School of Cognition, the Max Planck School Matter to Life, and the Max Planck School of Photonics.

“We want to concentrate initially on these three areas,” says Stratmann. “The most important issue is to combine the sciences and to test out different modes of doing so. Then the challenge will be to bring students together as a cohort.

Approximately 150 students in the first year with either Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees will be admitted to the three schools. Working in collaboration with around 20 German universities and numerous domestic research organizations, they will earn their Master’s and doctoral degrees, learning both online and in traditional classrooms, with the benefit of renowned lecturers and state-of-the-art laboratories to facilitate their education. In addition, they will meet at the program’s various partner institutions several times a year for group coursework and discussions.

Scientists led by Nobel laureate Stefan Hell (left) from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen are developing light microscopes with a spatial resolution down to a few nanometers, particularly, but not exclusively, for imaging cells and tissue of a living organism. Hell is faculty member of the Max Planck School Matter to Life as well as the Max Planck School of Photonics.

© Irene Böttcher-Gajewski/MPIbC

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) will provide initial funding for each of the three schools for five years, in the amount of 9 million Euros (USD 10.4 million) per year. Students in the program will attend free-of-charge and receive a generous stipend.

The program’s organizers are hopeful that by having a small number of carefully chosen principal investigators, the three pilot schools will become a credible competitor to the Ivy League schools in the United States, says Gerd Leuchs, director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, and one of the two speakers of the Max Planck School of Photonics. He decided to apply together with Andreas Tünnermann [Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering (IOF)] and three leading universities in the area of photonics (Friedrich-Schiller University Jena, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) to be in the pilot program, because it seemed like a “great opportunity.”

Many minds, one school

Program designers hope its unconventional approach to learning will not only draw more international talents to Germany, but also convince outstanding German students to study at home. “In Germany there is some difficulty in getting Ph.D. applicants to join German labs after earning their Bachelor’s degrees,” says Joachim Spatz, director at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, and one of the two speakers of the Max Planck School Matter to Life. Traditionally, German students pick their Ph.D. topic after earning their Master’s degree, which is a requirement for acceptance as a Ph.D. candidate. The new graduate schools will allow students to enroll in a combined Master’s/Ph.D. program after earning their Bachelor’s degree, Spatz says.

Arno Villringer, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig.

© Nikolaus Brade für das MPI CBS

Bringing together some of Germany’s top scientists to serve as supervisors and mentors is also a big draw for students. “Excellence [in teaching and research] is distributed across the country; to bundle the best researchers from different universities and organizations is quite unique,” says Arno Villringer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, and a Speaker of the Max Planck School of Cognition. “The advantage of joint schools is that they can offer much more flexibility and expertise with highly visible and internationally known faculty members.”

Adds Stratmann, “The real benefit is having the best minds in Germany in one school.”

Prof. Dr. med. Katrin Amunts, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf & Forschungszentrum Jülich.

© Forschungszentrum Jülich_Catrin Moritz

Students accepted to the School of Cognition, for example, will first participate in lab rotations intended to complement their previous studies. During the first year, they will attend both online and in-person classes individually, and three times a year attend in-person courses together. After the first year, everyone will qualify for their Master’s degree, according to Villringer. They will then enter the main doctoral phase in one of the participating labs, supervised by at least two faculty members.

The courses will include the latest cutting-edge science. “Cognition research is a rapidly evolving field,” says Katrin Amunts, professor at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and the second speaker of the Max Planck School of Cognition, “The curriculum will deal with topics from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, physics, computer sciences, philosophy, biology, and medicine.”

Research could focus on issues such as which cognitive processes are related to language, how different types of learning and decision-making are organized in living beings, and how they might be replicated in artificial intelligence systems.

Eliminating silos in science

Organizers are eager to see how students develop their own areas of study within their departments, branching out from traditional topics.

By attracting some of the best international students, scientists and administrators aim to create a school of broadly educated scientists, says Villringer, who hopes to develop new ways of defining cognition, philosophy, and artificial intelligence, and perhaps to create a new language of cognition and intelligence across many different disciplines. 

Gerd Leuchs, Max Planck Institute for the Science in Light, in his lab.

© Axel Griesch/MPG

“Our students will contribute new ways of thinking,” echoes Leuchs. “Young people who challenge the standard opinion of senior scientists will advance the sciences.”

Among the challenges students of the Max Planck School Matter to Life will be tackling is how to understand—from both a physical and chemical point of view—where the boundary between living and nonliving matter lies. “I would like to generate matter with lifelike properties,” says Spatz. “But doing so will require a lot of education and transdisciplinary training, such as ethics and legal training,” he explains.

There could be many applications for a lifelike polymer, for example, that could migrate and adhere like a bacterium in a body. “Can we design cells that eventually function in people, such as a designer immune cell that can be used to deliver drugs to certain locations and release them on a target?” Spatz continues. “Can we generate something synthetically that acts like a muscle? And if we can, then maybe it can improve on nature.”

We want to bring the best minds together from different fields, bring together great students from all over the world, and give them valuable perspectives as future leading scientists.

Martin Stratmann

New template for science education

Organizers also see the potential for a pipeline of highly trained scientists from diverse backgrounds applying to work at the program’s participating institutions. “With the new graduate program, we hope to attract some of the best students worldwide, to an even larger extent than we have done in the past,” says Leuchs. “Some of them will opt for a career in academia, and we will try to attract the best among them for a career within our various partner institutions.” In fact, the German research community already has a large international component—for example, as of December 2017, 52% of all Max Planck Society staff scientists were foreign nationals.

Stephan Grill, faculty member of the Max Planck School Matter to Life, is interested in understanding the biophysical basis of morphogenesis, how an unpatterned blob of cells develops into a fully structured and formed organism.

© Sven Doering/MPG_Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden

The three pilot schools will begin accepting applications in fall 2018, with a submission deadline in December, in keeping with the international application cycle.

By pooling their expertise and efforts, involved partner institutions hope to craft a novel template that will become the new standard for science education. “If we are successful, we expect that in the future, this [model] will be seen as the best investment for both scientists and countries,” says Spatz.

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